7.4.10 sermon notes

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“The Sacrament of Failure”

One of my mom’s favorite anecdotes from my childhood is the story of me learning to ride a bike . . . My mom had some health problems and was not able to help me, and my dad was at work a lot.  He had promised to help me learn to ride my bike, but apparently, I got tired of waiting.  So I got out on our street and was determined to teach myself.  I fell – a LOT.  At some point, my mom recalls looking out the window to see me pick up the bike and throw it on the ground in anger.  I tried and I fell, and I tried and I fell.  I was a bruised, scraped mess by the time it was all over, but after enough trials and many errors, I did it.  I could ride my bike. But it took a lot of mistakes before I could do it well.

In general, we don’t like failing.  In fact, most of us grow up being taught that “failure is not an option” and we view it as a sign of weakness.  So here in this gospel story from Luke, it strikes me that Jesus is putting his disciples in a situation where they may very well fail.

Jesus instructs his disciples (note, more than 12 – there are 70 here!) to go out ahead of him to various cities to help spread the gospel – to prepare the way for him.  And he instructs them to go out and take a risk.  Not only is there the risk involved in taking NOTHING with you and relying on the hospitality of strangers.  But there is also the risk of failure.  In fact, Jesus basically tells them that there will be moments when they will fail.  And what are they to do when that happens?  Shake the dust off their feet and move on.  There is something profound, something holy about this practice.  Oh, that we allowed ourselves to do this more often!         One scholar actually coined a beautiful phrase based on this idea.  He calls it “the sacrament of failure.”  While we may not find much holiness or redeeming value in failing at something, it is a sign that we took a chance – did something different, broke out of our molds.  And when we take risks, we may sometimes fail, yes, but we also risk wonderful new possibilities.  And there is something holy about taking chances like that – both in the humility we exhibit when we shake the dust off our feet and move on, and in the ways we allow the Holy Spirit to move among us when we try something new.

Oh, that the church took this sacrament of failure more seriously.  Sometimes I think we as a denomination are so afraid of falling that we choose to do nothing but stand still.  Yes, it’s scary to take risks.  We might try some new things and we might make some mistakes.  But we also might find ourselves in the midst of some amazing new possibilities for how to be the church.

This weekend marks the beginning of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s bi-annual General Assembly gathering.  Elders and Ministers and advisory delegates from across the country are together in Minneapolis to discuss how we are to be the church, how we as a denomination approach difficult issues, and more.  They will consider overtures and task force reports ranging from the frequency of General Assembly meetings to the definition of marriage to our position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is full of enough Roberts Rules of Order to make the nerdiest of Presbyterians weary.  It is a time of celebration of what is going well with the church, and it is a time to explore important issues that will be debated and voted on by our presbyteries over the next two years.  And  miraculously, the Holy Spirit works even through all of this.  And hopefully, this time will include moments of faithful risk taking.

We as a denomination have been playing church a little too safely, in my opinion.  We have gotten stuck in old traditions and ways of being.  We have even gotten stuck in all of the same debates over and over again.  Our General Assembly agendas sometimes feel more like déjà-vu than new dynamic possibilities for this connectional church.  To be clear, there are important issues at stake on which equally faithful people disagree.  But we have gotten no closer to reconciliation and we have wasted precious resources having the same debates with new faces and locations.  We need to break out of our old models of being the church, of being a denomination.  We need to take some risks.  We need to be dreaming big enough that failure is possible.  Because doing nothing – staying stuck and rehashing the past is slowly killing us.  As Bruce Reyes-Chow, our now former moderator (as of last night) said recently:  “Our faith can calcify to the point that we are no longer able to recognize the proddings of God.”  We have life-giving gifts to share; the Spirit of God is still vibrant and working among us – why do we keep stifling it?

[[[[Shel Silverstein – PB sandwich and King poem (Where the Sidewalk Ends, 84) ]]]]

This past week at our Session meeting, we had some good conversation about being stuck and how people and churches are really good at doing that.  Like the king in the poem, we tend to get stuck in problems of our own making, and the moment we have a bit of freedom from it, what do we do?  We seek out the thing that got us in the mess in the first place.  So as we reflected on this as a Session, I commented that Northminster seems to be a place where things do not get quite as stuck.  Granted, some of you this morning may have felt your blood-pressure rise a bit as you walked into the sanctuary and had to figure out where to sit now that the pews have changed.  These are hard habits to break – I get that.  But I think it is good for us.

In general, you all have a spirit of openness and creativity toward your buildings, your programs, your worship that is not always present in communities of faith.  I must say, as your pastor, it is beautiful and refreshing.  I asked Session why you all seem to be less stuck than some communities, and I want you to hear some of their responses:  You have a wonderful history of taking risks.  You are young at heart and have open minds.  You genuinely love and care for one another and value the gifts and contributions that others bring, even if it might be different from your own.  I would add that perhaps you are more willing to take risks because you trust one another.  And because you, as a community, are rooted in a faith that is strong enough to handle some shaky ground.  Your identity as brothers and sisters in Christ frees you to love unconditionally, serve faithfully, and know that the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than that pew or this building or that project or committee.  So I challenge you to cultivate these traits, let them flourish and encourage it in one another.

And when we come to this table, we are taking an extraordinary risk.  As our communion liturgy will remind us, we cannot share this Living Bread and remain the same.  When we enter into the kind of communion with God and with one another that we experience here at the table, we are empowered to live into the new creations Christ makes available for us.  We are fed at this table so that we can be strengthened to go out and feed others – to take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God – to not just go to church, but to be the church.

I hope and pray that even with our changes here in the sanctuary that this is still a place of welcome for you and those who are yet to discover us.  And when the new pew cushions are here, I hope you will find them to be a comfortable addition to our worship space.  But as one of our elders said, don’t ever let yourselves get too comfortable here (and I’m not just talking about pew cushions).  Take some chances, knowing that failure is a possibility.  And when we do fail, shake it off, begin again, and look for new  ways to take equally risky steps tomorrow.  Amen.

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